Once upon a time there was a “blue whale” swimming towards a whale bar. A dainty and dazzling ‘fin whale’ on the counter immediately caught her eye as she stepped away from the other blue beauties. When their eyes met, he showed her her dishes, knowing that she would become the mother of his children with the same certainty with which she knew that nothing could be tastier than sautéed krill.
The love child between the genetically close blue whale and the fin whale, nicknamed “flue,” has been recorded in the Atlantic, although the parents did not quite meet in the way we just described. These hybrids were thought to be infertile, like mules are. But a recent analysis of blue whale DNA has changed this assumption and could have a surprising influence on blue whale conservation.
Until recently, blue whales were hunted almost to extinction, but fortunately, their numbers are slowly recovering. However, scientists were especially concerned about the North Atlantic subspecies, due to its relatively small population. To investigate, they created a complete genetic model for these whales, like putting together a huge puzzle.
What they found was mind-blowing: every whale studied had traces of fin whale DNA, averaging around 3.5% of its genome! While surprising, mating between blue and fin whales is not entirely new. It turns out that even hybrids can reproduce with blue whales, creating “backcross” offspring with a mix of DNA.
Although interbreeding can sometimes be harmful, according to scientists, this surprising genetic mix could actually help blue whales. The influx of fin whale DNA could provide valuable genetic diversity, making them more adaptable to challenges such as climate change.
The study also showed unexpected gene flow among Atlantic blue whale populations, indicating greater connectivity and genetic diversity than previously thought. This strengthens their resilience and reinforces conservation efforts.
The long-term impacts of this genetic exchange require further study, but the discovery sheds new light on the resilience of blue whales and offers hope for their continued recovery. For now, all we know is that a long-ago forbidden romance between a blue whale and a fin whale could be the salvation an entire species needs today.
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